Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rashi Shabbat in review

Rashi Shabbat at Beth Israel was absolutely amazing! I absolutely recommend any shul to host Rashi expert rabbi yisrael Herczeg, editor of the Sparstein Rashi Translation, as a scholar in residence. He is very reasonably priced, a pleasure to work with, and the shul loved him.

Every one of his lectures was well attended and most people who heard him once came back to hear him again. I worked him pretty hard while he was here, although he says that teaching is his passion and it is not work for him at all.

His first lecture was Thursday night at the kripke Jewish library at our JCC campus. There was a terrible thunder storm which I feared would prevent people from coming out, but when I arrived with Rabbi Herczeg 15 minutes early the room was already full.
When the lecture began every seat in the room was taken. A good friend of mine, Dr. Leonard Greenspoon, teaches Jewish studies at the university of Creighton and he brought his class, most if not all of whom are not Jewish.
Rabbi Herzceg's topic was "the strangest rule in Rashi." He explains that of the 8000 comments that Rashi makes on the Torah, only about 200 times Rashi actually ask a question explicitly.  He brought a couple of examples and he demonstrated that in each case Rashi's real question is never the question he actually asks.
Rabbi Herczeg is great teacher. All of his ideas are clear and he gives background in a concise way that makes the class accessible to people without background without making it simplistic for people with background. The people in the class ranged from rabbis to non-Jewish college students and he captivated the crowd to a person. After the lecture Jews and non Jews stayed to thank him and ask some follow up questions about the lecture or about Rashi in general.

 On Friday I had the opportunity to learn privately with rabbi Herczeg in the morning. He has already written a translation and commentary to Rashi on the Torah as well as a number of books (Patterns in Rashi) in Hebrew and English on Rashi and a commentary to Rashi's commentary to psalms. Currently he is finishing a commentary on Rashi on Mishlei - proverbs - which he has been working on for a few years already. It seemed to him that the edition of Rashi that we have on Mishlei has been subject to censureship more so than other sections of the bible. This could be because much of rashi's comments refer to the efforts to convert Jews to Christianity. In order to reconcile this rabbi Herzeg went to the Hebrew university library where he was given access to a manuscript of Rashi from the 1200s that is located in a museum library in the Netherlands. Hebrew U has it on micro film. He found hundreds of discrepancies between that manuscript and the one that appears in our standard editions. Many of them clear up Rashi comments that have been unclear, others change the understanding of Rashi completely. He gave me a sneak preview of some of his notes.

Whenever I have a scholar in residence I take them with me on my hospital visits so that congregants who will not be able to make it for Shabbat can have an opportunity to hear from him a little. Everyone appreciated meeting Rabbi herczeg and having an opportunity to learn with him.

Every Friday our kosher nursing home has a kosher deli that is open to the community.  I took rabbi Herczeg there for lunch hoping to promote his Shabbat lectures. Fortunately everyone had already heard about him from my tweeting and Facebook posts.

At lunch we had a conversation about Rashi with the Chabad rabbi (who stopped by to see rabbi Herczeg on Shabbat afternoon) and the assistant rabbi at the conservative shul came over to thank rabbi Herzceg for his Rashi translation which he said was invaluable to him when he was studying to be a Conservative Rabbi.

Friday night rabbi Herczeg spoke between mincha and maariv. He gave an example of Rashi's question behind the question in the first comment to this week's parshah.  Since the comment deals with the topic of lashon harah, rabbi Herczeg ended with a nice idea of his own regarding lashon harah and Judaism's unique sensitive approach to speech.

On Shabbat morning he did something very interesting. He gave a brilliant sermon that was more like a fifteen minute class. He cited the Baal haturim in Miketz that suggests that the conversation between Yosef and yehuda regarding whether or not the brothers were there to spy out Egypt, was actually an allusion to the future episode of this week's parshah about yehoshua - a descendant of Yosef - and Caleb - a ascendant of yehuda. He explained how this idea sets up two paradigms represented by Yosef and yehuda respectively, and these two paradigms are represented consistently in their descendants yehoshua and caleb. He concluded by inviting everyone back to his evening lecture where he would demonstrate how these paradigms manifest in the methodology of Rashi on one side and his grandchildren, the tosefists on the other.

After davening we had a sponsored lunch followed by a Rashi workshop with rabbi Herzeg. I could not believe the big crowd that stayed to learn. I think everyone who attended walked away with a new appreciation for Rashi and developed skills that will enable them to learn Rashi better on their own.

In the late afternoon rabbi Herczeg gave a class on Rashi's commentary to Gemara that was advertised as being only for advanced students. Once again I was astounded at what an impression rabbi Herczeg had made on people. 25 people showed up to learn, most of whom did not have the requisite background. They just wanted to hear what an advanced Gemara class sounds like.
Rabbi Herczeg showed us a passage of gemara that appears in both kiddushin and in arachin. The passage is identical in both places but Rashi's comments are completely different - they even seem to present two differing opinions as to the halachah. Rabbi Herzeg first demonstrated to us how Rashi's comments took into account the different contexts in which the passage appeared and how Rashi was contouring his comments in away that reflected the different contexts.
At the end of the shiur he asked us to read the passages one more time with our new understandings of Rashi. What became apparent was that the passages were not completely identical! There was one single word that differed in the two passages, and that word supported the positions of Rashi in both places!
For those of us who had the background, the class was like watching the movie the Usual Suspects. Captivating the whole way through with the twist ending that throws you out of your seat. Unfortunately the topics of hekdesh for sdei achuza and kiddushin al tenai were a too technical and too advanced for those without background. Always sensitive to his audience, Rabbi Herczeg expertly adapted.  He truncated the class without dumbing it down at all. He is really a master teacher.

After the advanced class we took a short break as the sanctuary filled up for his  follow up lecture from his sermon earlier that morning. I was once again pleased with the large crowd, mostly form Beth Israel but people from other shuls in town as well.
This lecture was by far his best. It was based on a piece by the 19th century scholar rav Zadok hakohen. Rav zadok views the entire Torah as one passage in which every single topic is connected somehow. He started with rashis understanding of the passage where we are first introduced to the mothers of the Jewish people, Rachel and Leah.  He shows how they represent the beginning of the two paradigms of yosef - Rachel's offspring, and yehuda - leah's offspring. As promised he traced rav zadok hakohen's thesis all through the bible and all through Jewish history ending with Rashi and his grandchildren. He then proceed to bring one example after another of arguments between Rashi and tosefot that represented a fundamental disagreement stemming from the two different paradigms.
It was beyond interesting. It was an exciting roller coaster ride through tanach, Gemara, poskim, and Jewish history! The lecture was an hour, but based on the response from the crowd he could have easily gone all night without losing anyone's attention.

All in all it was a great success. Many congregants came over to me to thank me for choosing such an unbelievable scholar and asked if we could somehow arrange for him to come again in the future. I want to thank the anonymous donor (you know who you are) for making this weekend possible. It is not often that we are privileged to have this caliber of a Torah scholar come to Omaha but when such a scholar does visit us for shabbat, Beth Israel responds and demonstrates how enthusiastic we are to learn Torah. There is a great deal of excitement about Torah following his visit, and the next scholar has a high bar to live up to when he or she comes to Beth Israel in Omaha -  where every Shabbat is a shabbaton!


  1. WOW! What an amazing and fabulous tribute to the genius and talents or Rabbi Herczeg! Thank you!

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